It is good to hear the positive results from new studies, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, showing that interventions carried out by teaching assistants (TAs) with small groups helped improve children’s results in the 3Rs. In fact these results are consistent with earlier research, going back many years, which evaluated the use of TAs for specific interactions, usually in literacy.
These findings are welcome given the troubling results from the large scale Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) study, which I directed. We found clear evidence from a sophisticated longitudinal programme involving more than 8000 pupils that the more support pupils received from TAs over the school year the less progress they made. This was the case even when we controlled for ‘pupil factors’ such as children’s prior attainment and their level of special educational need (SEN).
I have often been asked how we can reconcile the two sets of seemingly contradictory results – i.e. the negative findings from DISS and the positive ones from specific interventions.
I think the explanation is clear. While the intervention studies relate to specific outcomes from a targeted programme in which TAs have been trained for the job, the DISS study was concerned with how TAs were used on a daily basis across the whole curriculum and school day.
It is no surprise that TAs, when appropriately trained, can produce positive effects, but the DISS study was also clear that for the most part TAs are not used in this way. We found that TAs were typically used in an informal remedial role with low attaining pupils and pupils with special educational needs. This support was an alternative to teacher input, not additional to it, and the pupils supported by TAs missed out on interactions with their teachers.
We also found that TAs were often under-prepared for their role – often going into lessons ‘blind’ – and had received little guidance or training. In more recent studies, my colleagues Rob Webster and Tony Russell and I have found that this deployment of TAs is still common. The problem, then, is not TAs as such, but ways in which TAs are used in schools.
Although the EEF funded research is welcome, there are a few well known problems with ‘pull-out’ interventions that need to be carefully considered when TAs are used to carry them out. If, as is the case in the EEF studies, interventions are assessed in terms of specific academic outcomes related to the literacy or numeracy intervention, they can be found to successful. But in our studies we have found that pupils are often withdrawn from the classroom for interventions and as a result become detached from the teacher, the classroom, their classmates and the curriculum. One therefore needs to account for the lost and disrupted coverage as well as the gains during the intervention.
A connected point concerns the extent to which what is learned during the intervention is connected back to the pupils’ broader experiences of the curriculum. We have found that interventions are often quite separate from classroom activities and there is relatively little communication or feedback between the TA and teacher afterwards. This meant it was often left to the pupils themselves to make any links with their mainstream curriculum coverage. Given that supported pupils were usually those with the most difficulties this was a huge challenge for them. The integration of the specific intervention and mainstream curriculum coverage is therefore vital.
But the main problem is that training TAs for specific interventions does not on its own provide an answer to the ineffective way in which they have been deployed in schools. Schools need to fundamentally rethink the way they use TAs on an everyday basis. Otherwise, their enormous potential will not be fully realised.
Our key message is this: TAs should be used to add value to teachers not replace them. Our book ‘Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants’ sets out strategies for schools and classroom and highlights three areas for development:.
- We need to rethink the deployment of TAs so they are not given primary responsibility for pupils in most need. For instance, rotating groups can allow teachers to spend more time with such pupils.
- We need to rethink the preparedness of TAs (and teachers) so they have more time to communicate and have more professional development, especially for pupils with SEN.
- And we need to work on the way TAs talk to pupils, for example developing effective styles of questioning in support of pupil independent learning.
All of these are a challenge and all involve tough decisions, but we have found in our work with schools that huge progress is being made, and this contributes to school improvement more broadly.